The civil legal aid system is ‘running on an empty tank’ and the widespread closure of high street solicitors is putting more pressure on barristers, a study by the Bar Council has found.

In a report based on interviews with barristers and clerks, the Bar Council says civil legal aid is kept going by the ‘goodwill of the legal profession’ and barristers are increasingly being forced to stand in for roles that should be covered by other public services.

The study says the loss of advice centres and high street solicitors across the country means cases are more complicated and urgent by the time they reach a barrister. ‘Barristers are frequently having to take on cases that would have never needed the trouble and expense of court time had their clients received sensible welfare benefits advice in the early stages of their legal problem. Solicitors firms that do still take on legal aid work are stretched thin, resulting in difficult and stressful working conditions for solicitors and barristers.’

The report also highlighted the ‘inequality of arms’ in relation to bereaved families being represented at inquests and the ‘obtuse and complicated’ processes at the Legal Aid Agency. ‘There is a widespread perception of a “culture of refusal” at the Legal Aid Agency and, further, a lack of transparency in the decision-making process by which funding is awarded,’ the report states. 

Bar chair Derek Sweeting QC said: ‘Our report finds a civil legal aid system running on an empty tank, kept going by nothing more than the goodwill of the legal profession. This is not a sustainable way to guarantee the future of such an essential service for the public.'